The grid may have been built in the last century, but it is still resilient and works well.
Yes, it could use some additions to increase capacity due to growth.
What it doesn’t need is tampering to make it accommodate distributed generation, largely the result of renewables.
The grid was designed to provide transmission and distribution from centralized power generation sources … not from a plethora of minuscule generation sources, such as PV mounted on rooftops.
The industry is being driven in that direction by having to comply with Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) also referred to as Renewable Energy Standards (RES).
These laws require utilities to supply a specific percentage of electricity from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. Hydro is usually excluded as a renewable source.
RPS laws start by initially requiring a very small percentage of electricity to come from renewable sources, and gradually increase the requirements until higher percentages must come from renewable sources. For example, California law dictates that utilities must provide 33% from renewable sources by 2020; Illinois 25% by 2025; Colorado 30% by 2020.
Approximately 26 states currently have RPS laws.
At present, the required amounts of renewables are small; typically 1% or 2%, and the impacts on consumers have been too small to be noticed. The impact on consumers will grow as the percentage of renewables increase.
The impact on utilities is already great, as they attempt to prepare for the greater impact of renewables on the grid.
Utilities have to turn cartwheels in an effort to accommodate renewable sources.
There are three incontrovertible facts about RPS:
- RPS increases the cost of electricity.
- RPS requires extensive manipulation of the grid, with each tweak making the grid weaker.
- The states are implementing RPS so as to cut CO2 emissions.
I recently attended a conference on energy storage, since storage is the holy grail of wind and solar.
The proposed methods for storing electricity include batteries, pumped storage, compressed air energy storage (CAES), hydrogen storage, plus a few other more fanciful methods.
Batteries are very expensive and don’t have the capacity to meet the demands of the grid. They can be used to provide back-up electricity locally for short periods of time, depending on the size and number of batteries.
Pumped storage works and can be useful, however it requires storage of water behind dams where the terrain is suitable. It’s also expensive.
Electrolysis, using the excess electricity from wind farms, can produce hydrogen that can be burned in turbines to generate electricity when it’s needed … at an additional expense.
CAES was covered in detail at this conference. Two or three installations have been built at a cost of roughly $500 million each; one in Germany, another in the United States.
The compressed air in these installations is stored in underground salt caverns.
All of these methods are costly and will increase the cost of electricity to consumers.
None of them are included in the advertised cost or levelized cost (LOCE) of wind or solar.
What was fascinating, and at the same time tragic, was listening to the paroxysms that utilities had to go through to accommodate wind and solar.
The General Manager, who was demonstrably smart and capable, of an important utility, described how he developed a strategy of regional and local storage to maximize the amount of renewables that the transmission lines could accommodate. He dismissed batteries, for the reasons outlined above.
He explored salt domes with geologists for regional storage of compressed air. Salt domes require multimillion dollar investments, as much as $25 million just to determine whether the site is suitable. He was identifying ways to store compressed air locally to accommodate local interruptions to the distribution system.
He was anticipating that PV solar would become so large on his system, by around 2017, that it would hollow out his traditional power generation capability during the day, requiring him to shut it down or run it at reduced load, i.e., load following … the most expensive and damaging way to run his generating plant.
After he completed his hour-long talk, I asked him whether he would be taking any of these actions if it weren’t that the government was forcing him to meet its renewable portfolio standards.
His answer was quick, concise and significant.
He said … No.
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